Analysis: No campaign tops the plebiscite podium

A dozen years to the day after the International Olympic Committee voted Vancouver to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, Elections B.C. revealed that voters nixed Metro Vancouver mayors' plan to set the sales tax higher so they could make TransLink stronger and faster.

The Olympics may have cost $8 billion over seven years to build and operate; there never was an official tally. The Mayors want to spend $7.7 billion over a decade on a Broadway subway, Surrey light rail, a new Pattullo Bridge and other projects. Their plan to finance it is going back to the drawing board after 467,032 of 757,183 voters marked No on their ballots between March 16 and May 29, rejecting an increase of the 7 per cent Provincial Sales Tax to 7.5 per cent.

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Let the summer fingerpointing games begin.

It will start with Premier Christy Clark and her 2013 BC Liberal campaign promise sprint — a referendum on the 2014 civic election ballot. The Mayors stomped their feet and got a non-binding, two-and-half-month marathon mail-in vote after Clark buckled. Clark had previously confused politicians and the public by green lighting, after the election, a $3 billion bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel without giving the public a chance to vote.

More No votes were cast this spring than the winning Mayors received last fall. Only Electoral Area A — mainly University of B.C. residents — Belcarra and Bowen Islands voters said Yes. The Yes campaign was engineered by a reunion of the Vision Vancouver 2014 campaign backroom, but 50.81 per cent on Mayor Gregor Robertson's home turf voted no. The Broadway Subway is officially on hold and Robertson's winning streak has ended. The former Happy Planet juiceman had boasted a 2005 Vancouver-Fairview win for the NDP and 2008, 2011 and 2014 majorities for Vision Vancouver at 12th and Cambie before ascending to the chair of the Mayors' Council in January.

The Mayors' Council campaign, managed by Bob Ransford with help from Marcella Munro and Diamond Isinger and Vision robocaller/telephone town haller Stratcom, used a whole lot of fear and a dash of greed, the great human motivators. It failed to put a friendly or nostalgic face on public transit. Nearly four-year-old academic research by University of Toronto economists poked holes you could drive a bus through into the shopworn "Cut Congestion" slogan. Yes campaign's talking points also included the laughable "TransLink is not on the ballot." While technically correct, it didn't work. Voters knew it was the mismanaged monopoly TransLink that would be first to benefit from any increase in tax revenue.

This really was a non-confidence vote on the $1.4 billion-a-year people mover with taxation authority that refused to let the people who pay taxes and fares watch how its board spends that money. How could it be trusted with $7.7 billion if it could not be transparent about the $6 million public-funded ad campaign when reporters asked for details?

The die was cast early on, when TransLink shot both of its feet. First with the February demotion of CEO Ian Jarvis into a board advisory role and contracting of interim CEO Doug Allen, most recently of the SNC-Lavalin-run Canada Line. Then, in March, B.C.'s richest man, Jim Pattison, was named to chair an accountability committee that seemed to have been created on the back of a napkin. It must have led to soul-searching for the pro-transit, pro-cycling Yes campaigners. Pattison made his fortune as a car dealer and runs a freight truck-dependent grocery chain in vehicle-reliant shopping centres. His new downtown skyscraper, parkade and Toyota dealership project is winding its way through city hall, so why would he turn down the Mayor's request for a favour to endorse the campaign? Robertson's predecessor, North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton, let it slip that John Furlong, Trevor Linden, Steve Nash and Bob Lenarduzzi had previously been considered for the role of celebrity endorser.

Instead of appointing Pattison, TransLink could have used the statutory power granted by the province to open its board meetings to the public and media as a means of showing accountability and increasing trust. The only scheduled board meeting during the voting period at the end of March was behind closed doors.

The media relations office habitually referred reporters' routine questions about TransLink policies, procurement and spending, which could have been answered within hours, to the Freedom of Information office, which takes a month-and-a half or worse. The 2014 financial report release and annual general meeting, traditionally May events, were deliberately delayed to late June because TransLink worried the bad news wouldn't earn any Yes votes. The scheduling of a staff golf tournament for May 28, the penultimate day of the vote, was a hole-in-one on the bad optics scale.

When was the Yes campaign's turning point? April 8.

TransLink was mulling a rollout of the overdue and overbudget Compass card and fare gates system, but the plug was pulled on contractor Cubic Transportation Systems' April 8 invite-only wine and cheese/show and tell at Seasons in the Park, with the flimsy excuse of "scheduling conflicts and the holidays." As if calendars are a scarce commodity.

April 8 was also the night the grain freighter Marathassa spilled bunker fuel in English Bay. Deputy Mayor Andrea Reimer and Acting Mayor Raymond Louie were at a climate change conference in South Korea. The Mayor was vacationing on Vancouver Island, but hurried back for the photo ops. Vision Vancouver's 2014 platform was built on anti-oil hysteria and finally the day arrived. Petro pollution, not the TransLink tax, dominated discourse for the next two weeks and the campaign never regained whatever momentum it boasted in March.

Memories of the July 2014 SkyTrain outages were rekindled, and so were pictures of passengers escaping, when the system stopped twice more in May. The image of Allen waking by Main Street station after a May 22 news conference without personally acknowledging a single inconvenienced passenger and then taking a ride in his communications director's pickup truck was proof of TransLink's aloof C-suite culture.

Metro Vancouver has spoken. Any Plan B to expand and improve regional transportation and transit must begin with a reorganization and rebranding of TransLink.

@bobmackin

bob@bobmackin.ca

 

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